Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: WRs need to prove durability as well as abilities

Bears Camping Out 2016: WRs need to prove durability as well as abilities

The accomplishments of the offense under then-coordinator Adam Gase and quarterback Jay Cutler become all the more impressive when placed in the context of available resources.

At no time, from the beginning of training camp on, did the offense have its projected top three receivers available, and barely did the offense have even two of the three simultaneously.  Wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal, who played in a combined 63 of 64 total games the preceding two seasons, missed 14 combined entire games in 2015 and portions of several others because of myriad injuries.

And Kevin White, the No. 7 pick of the draft and slated to start opposite Jeffery, was lost to a stress fracture until late in the season when the decision was made, with the Bears sitting at 5-8 after demoralizing losses to San Francisco and Washington, to hold him out for the entire season.

Jeffery was a virtual non-participant in training camp and preseason because of a calf strain, foreshadowing a succession of lower-body injuries that made a long-term contract impractical at his price and use of the franchise tag a logical compromise. Jeffery’s anticipated playing this season for the guaranteed $14.6 million tag amount became official on Friday afternoon when the deadline for a deal passed.

Jeffery finished with 54 receptions, good enough to lead the Bears. But his 807 yards, a decline from his 1,421 of 2013 and 1,133 of 2014, was still more than any two other Bears combined. Royal was signed to be principally the No. 3, but with White unavailable, was pressed into starting all nine of the games he played and finished with 37 catches but only one for a touchdown.

The Bears got production from Marquess Wilson (28 catches), Marc Mariani (22), Josh Bellamy (19) and Cameron Meredith (11), all combining for 14 starts. But the group netted just three total touchdowns. Mariani emerged as a viable third-receiver option, with first downs recorded on 19 of his 22 catches and 11-for-11 on third-down targets.

Offseason adjustments

The exit of Gase to Miami, replaced by promoting Dowell Loggains from QB coach to coordinator, will stand as one of the single biggest adjustments within the entire on-field operations. The Bears also allowed receivers coach Mike Groh to leave for a post as passing-game coordinator and receivers coach with the Los Angeles Rams. In his place the organization hired Tulane receivers coach Curtis Johnson, who worked as a member of the New Orleans Saints staff during the Super Bowl season of 2009 and while Bears GM Ryan Pace was in personnel there.

White began making a major impression in closed practices once he was cleared for work late in the season. His developing a relationship with Cutler has been an emphasis this offseason. The two watched the Super Bowl together and traveled to Tennessee for some work together. “That’s been going good,” White said. “He’s a great leader. A great guy. So we’re trying to get on the same page.”

To the Bears dissatisfaction, Jeffery opted out of working with the team in Chicago other than for mandatory sessions, instead working out in south Florida on his own program. “I was just working on some soft tissues issues,” Jeffery said. “I was working out with my trainer and some other people I was seeing down there.”

The Bears used a seventh-round draft pick on Daniel Braverman out of Western Michigan, where he caught 108 passes for 1,367 yards and 13 touchdowns. Undrafted free agent Kieren Duncan secured a spot at least on the roster going into training camp.

Wilson was lost for an undetermined amount of time, expected to include the first six weeks of the regular season, when he fractured his foot during a minicamp practice.

But the focus is less on the depth chart than what the top of the chart – Jeffery and White – generates in their first time working together.

“They’re still learning,” Cutler said. “Al has got a little catching up to do with some of the stuff that we’re putting in, and then Kevin, taking a year off, it’s hard for anybody to not play football for a year. He played at West Virginia where our offense is a little bit different. So he’s kind of got a year and a half of just straight catching up with what he has to do in a short amount of time.”

Depth-charting

WR  Alshon Jeffery

WR  Kevin White

WR  Eddie Royal

The Mix

Josh Bellamy

Daniel Braverman

Kieren Duncan

Derek Keaton

Marc Mariani

Cameron Meredith

Darrin Peterson

Deonte Thompson

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…What exactly does $14.6 million buy the Bears?

Jeffery’s mindset and dedication have been subjects of conjecture, particularly after he missed seven games last season in what was a contract year. The franchise tag makes him one of the highest-paid receivers for 2016, but he was not an integral part of the offseason program and is a health concern until he isn’t.

And there is the matter of a new offensive coordinator, new receivers coach and a new wideout on the opposite side. “I mean, there were a few tweaks here and there,” Jeffery said, “but pretty much most of the stuff is still the same.”

…How far behind will Kevin White be after missing his entire rookie season beyond a handful of practices?

White’s attitude and work ethic are exemplary, but he had a handful of drops in offseason sessions, and does not have the NFL-experience base that his teammates have as the offense undergoes a change of coordinator. His to-learn list is extensive:

“Learning different types of coverages,” White began. “What the corners and safeties jobs are to stop a certain kind of concept we may run. Learning different types of techniques as far as press release, versus off and zone. That sort of stuff.”

…Is there quality and durability after Jeffery and White?

Not that either of those two have established records of durability, but Royal turns 30 and is coming off missing games at three different points last season. Wilson already is down until further notice. The Bears need to get through camp healthy and with starter-grade quality evident in more than their top two receivers.

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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USA Today Sports Images

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
 
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
 
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
 
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
 
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
 
2. Multiple weapons
 
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
 
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
 
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
 
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
 
3. History repeating itself
 
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
 
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
 
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
 
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.